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Gender, Diversity and Empowerment during the COVID-19 Pandemic



Public Virtual Event


August 23, 2021 (US) | August 24, 2021 (Asia)

Session 7 of the “Adapting to COVID-19: Indonesia, the United States, and the Indo-Pacific”
Virtual Forum Series


 Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese
Professor, US Naval War College

Dr. Alegra Wolter
Diversity Advocate and Chair, Suara Kita Advisory Board

Ms. Anindya Restuviani
Program Director, Jakarta Feminist and Co-Director, Hollaback! Jakarta

Key Findings

The Pacific Forum, with support from the US Embassy Jakarta and in partnership with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia, hosted the seventh session of the US Embassy Jakarta virtual forum series Adapting to COVID-19: Indonesia, the United States, and the Indo-Pacific” on Aug. 24. The topic of discussion in this session was “Gender, Diversity and Empowerment during COVID-19.” The public webinar was attended by 40 viewers from Indonesia, the United States, and the broader region. 

The webinar featured three panelists: Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese (US Naval War College), Dr. Alegra Wolter (Diversity Advocate and Chair, Suara Kita Advisory Board), and Ms. Anindya Restuviani (Program Director, Jakarta Feminist and Co-Director, Hollaback! Jakarta), who addressed the impacts of COVID-19 on women in the workplace, on gender-based violence (GBV) and gender inequality, and on minority groups. The event was moderated by Rocky Intan (CSIS Indonesia), with US Embassy Jakarta Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer Leo Jilk providing welcome remarks, and briefly establishing the context of the issues within the two countries. Key findings from the webinar are discussed below. 

The Gendered Impacts of COVID-19: Women Bearing the Brunt

COVID-19 affects everyone, but not equally. Women have borne the brunt of the economic, social, and familial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide. Prior to COVID-19, women, and especially women of color and LGBTQIA+ identifying individuals, were already economically vulnerable. Consequently, the gendered impacts of COVID-19 have been significant. In the United States, the pandemic-related economic downturn reversed positive trends regarding professional women in the workplace. One in four American women’s employment has been impacted by COVID-19, as opposed to one in five American men. Moreover, women are dropping out of the workforce to provide childcare and elder care, while feelings of burnout and pressure in the workplace have intensified due to the crisis. Compounding these structural and cultural issues, women are employed in greater numbers in hard-hit industries like childcare and service work. It is projected that one in four women in the US who left the workforce due to COVID-19 will not return to work, with similar results found in Indonesia. In moving forward, it is therefore crucial to change the discourse from a “women’s issue” to a social or “family issue.”

Gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic violence (DV) are pandemics within the pandemic. Importantly, while COVID-19 does not create abusers, it allows them more time and tools with which to commit violence. Lockdowns have given abusers greater access to their victims while public health measures requiring isolation and quarantining prevented many survivors from being able to access help. In the US, calls to the police concerning domestic abuse increased by 18% in San Antonio, 22% in Portland, and 10% in New York City. In 2020, hospital visits for wounds associated with DV were greater than those in 2018 and 2019 combined. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, there was a 79% increase in reported cases of GBV from 2019 to 2020. A national study found that 79% of respondents reported experiencing verbal abuse, 77% experienced psychological abuse, 65% experienced sexual abuse, 39% experienced physical violence, and 24% experienced economic violence, including through the control of a partner’s finances. Critically, 22% of respondents reported that this was the first time they experienced DV. Highlighting the ongoing challenges posed to survivors regarding support and justice, many expressed a lack of trust in the police, and as a result only 7% of cases were reported. Indonesian law only recognizes GBV as rape and other physical forms of violence, leaving many additional forms of GBV and DV, including those outlined above, unpunished. Concurrently, it is important to note that men and boys also experience gender-based violence, with laws and cultural norms similarly underpinning men’s difficulties in receiving support and justice.

COVID-19’s Impact on Vulnerable and Minority Groups

COVID-19’s uneven effects are acutely felt among minority groups and communities with pre-existing vulnerabilities. In fact in many places, LGBTQIA+ couples experienced higher rates of DV than the community average. A legacy of adversities has compounded the negative impacts of COVID-19 for transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals and groups, and transgender women have been one of the most visible target groups for pandemic-related violence and injustice. Already existing patterns of pathologization, discrimination, social rejection, and demonization are being exacerbated and amplified by the pandemic. A lack of government or alternative identification that recognizes people’s gender identities, leaves official support services inaccessible to many transgender and GNC individuals. Many transgender and GNC individuals also continue to face barriers to accessing health care, leading to delayed general care, sexual health services, and transition-related care. Involvement in non-formal economic sectors contributes to financial challenges, including poverty, crowded housing, and homelessness. One study revealed 58% of transgender individuals in Indonesia reported a loss of income as a result of the pandemic, and only 27% were receiving support from the government. Patterns of violence, discrimination, and stigma against transgender and GNC communities further lead to an increase in violence, with one in three affected. Transgender women are the most visible targets of violence, including from their families, security forces, and within their own communities. Isolation caused by the pandemic diminished access to social support networks, negatively impacting mental health. The pandemic saw an improvement in HIV care, but there was still a lack of mental health and transition-related care. 

Innovative and Resilient Community Action

Despite increasing knowledge of the gendered impacts of COVID-19, many reports frequently do not take into account gendered perspectives on the pandemic. Yet gender issues affect everyone, not just women, girls, and transgender and GNC individuals. Gender inequality and discrimination themselves are economically damaging. In the US, it is estimated that women permanently leaving the workforce due to COVID-19 will cost the country as much as $64 billion. According to the World Bank, there is a $160 trillion loss in human capital because of globally imposed gender standards. For girls, these commonly appear as child marriage, leaving school early, and pregnancy, while for boys these may manifest as physical violence, substance abuse, depression, and suicide. It has been estimated that Indonesia loses somewhere between $900 million and $12 billion each year due to violence and discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community, in particular in the education, health care, business, and social sectors. 

In many cases, innovative community-based solutions have been harnessed to provide support and resources to vulnerable groups during the pandemic. In Indonesia, although official reports to police remained low, service providers for survivors of GBV and DV saw a dramatic increase in reported cases during COVID-19. This overwhelmed the systems they had in place, leading to difficulty and delays in reporting and service provision. To combat this, as well as restricted physical access to services, some providers have created digital-based interventions. Websites may provide easier and safer access to information on need and location-based services. Cari Layanan developed a Twitter bot to automatically respond to a direct message or mention on the platform, and work is being progressed on a Facebook version as well. COVID-19 spurred action on improving access to government documents like legal ID cards, birth certificates, and family cards for the transgender and GNC community in Indonesia. For those lacking identification, community and other groups collaborated with vaccine committees to improve ease of access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Enhanced use of digital platforms allowed for activism and support even while physically separated. Transgender and GNC groups started their own networks of community support and fundraising, and saw an increase in collaboration with regional and international groups. 

Inclusive COVID-19 Responses for a Safer Post-Pandemic World

The world could not be considered “safe” for women, girls, and the LGBTQIA+ community pre- COVID-19, yet amid the heightened challenges and often disproportionately negative impacts, the pandemic poses a transformative opportunity to build a safer, more secure post-pandemic global society. Gender issues are everyone’s issues, regardless of how they choose to identify. Across the world, some structural barriers to gender equality are falling, but cultural barriers remain strong in many areas. In the US, the participation of women and minority groups in politics is rising at the local, state, and national levels. Women tend not to adopt the zero-sum game male politicians often employ, rather engaging in consensus-building and collaboration. In some circumstances, “women’s issues” are meaningfully addressed, rather than being used as bargaining chips. Problems that were once ignored or considered private, such as GBV and economic inequality, are coming to light today, in part through the exposure the pandemic has instigated. Addressing issues faced by transgender and GNC communities requires challenging the existing systems which have been built based on the gender binary. 

Diversity is crucial to the vibrancy of American and Indonesian democracies, but the question of how this is captured in responses to COVID-19 remains. There is a lack of women in leadership positions in COVID-19 responses, despite the fact that those which were women-led were often found to be the most effective. Effectively accounting for the unequal impacts of COVID-19 on women and minority groups requires inclusive responses. Inclusive responses in turn require organizations and individuals to engage in practices that uphold the principles of non-discrimination and inclusion. Adopting an intersectional lens is critical, but translating theory into practice must allow policy to reflect evolving and progressive social values. Finally, in terms of bilateral and international cooperation, it is crucial to remember that local perspectives should not be ignored, especially those of youth and women. Collaboration and learning cannot be a one-way conversation and bilateral partners should commit to listening to vulnerable groups, local organizations and activists in order to ensure sustainable and co-constructed solutions to transnational problems.

This document was prepared by Lily Schlieman, Maryruth Belsey Priebe, and Tevvi Bullock. For more information, please contact Rob York ([email protected]), Director for Regional Affairs at Pacific Forum. These preliminary findings provide a general summary of the discussion. This is not a consensus document. The views expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants. The speakers have approved this summation of their presentation.

About this Series

The U.S.-Indonesia bilateral relationship is one of substantial depth and has evolved over time to reflect the changing priorities of each country. The U.S. and Indonesia entered into a Comprehensive Partnership in 2010 that initiated consistent high-level engagement on various issues spanning democracy and civil society, education, security, resilience, and mitigation. The relationship was further upgraded in 2015 with the signing of the US-Indonesia Strategic Partnership, which expanded the cooperation into various issues that have regional and global significance.

At the turn of a new decade, our countries are both at a crossroads: confronting a highly volatile political, economic, and security environment in the midst of an international health crisis.

To this end, Pacific Forum is proud to launch the virtual series “Adapting to COVID-19: Indonesia, the United States and the Indo-Pacific,” with support from the US Embassy in Jakarta. Pacific Forum will collaborate with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia (CSIS Indonesia) throughout this series.

The nine-part virtual series will address broad, cross-cutting issues that impact both countries: emerging security issues, COVID-19, regional and bilateral trade and investment, and democracy and civil society. It will feature American and Indonesian experts with diverse yet complementary backgrounds to examine the trajectory of US-Indonesia relations in the new normal.

Latar Belakang

Hubungan bilateral AS-Indonesia adalah hubungan yang mendalam dan telah berevolusi seiring waktu untuk merefleksikan perubahan prioritas masing-masing negara. AS dan Indonesia memasuki Kemitraan Komprehensif (Comprehensive Partnership) pada tahun 2010 yang memulai kerja sama tingkat tinggi secara konsisten di berbagai isu yang mencakup demokrasi dan masyarakat sipil, pendidikan, keamanan, ketahanan, dan mitigasi. Hubungan ini ditingkatkan lebih lanjut pada tahun 2015 melalui penandatanganan Kerja Sama Strategis (Strategic Partnership) AS-Indonesia, yang memperluas kerja sama ini ke berbagai isu yang memiliki signifikansi regional dan global.

Memasuki dekade baru ini, kedua negara kita ada di persimpangan jalan, menghadapi lingkungan politik, ekonomi, dan keamanan yang tidak stabil di tengah-tengah sebuah krisis kesehatan internasional.

Maka dari itu, Pacific Forum dengan bangga meluncurkan seri virtual “Beradaptasi dengan COVID-19: Indonesia, Amerika Serikat, dan Wilayah Indo-Pasifik”, dengan dukungan dari Kedutaan Besar AS di Jakarta. Pacific Forum akan bekerja sama dengan Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) sepanjang seri virtual ini.

Seri virtual sembilan-bagian ini akan menjawab isu-isu yang luas yang berdampak ke kedua negara: isu-isu keamanan yang muncul, COVID-19, perdagangan dan investasi regional dan bilateral, serta demokrasi dan masyarakat sipil. Seri ini akan melibatkan pakar-pakar Amerika dan Indonesia dengan latar belakang yang beragam namun saling melengkapi untuk mengupas alur hubungan AS-Indonesia di dalam new normal.

This series is held with support from the US Embassy Jakarta and
in collaboration with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia.

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